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NASA has awarded the University of California, Berkeley, a $173 million contract to build and operate a fleet of five satellites to pinpoint the event in Earth's magnetic neighborhood that triggers violent but colorful eruptions in the Northern and Southern lights. The aurora borealis and aurora australis are shimmering light shows that brighten the polar nights, generated by showers of electrons descending along magnetic field lines onto the poles. These high-speed electrons spark colored lights as they hit the atmosphere, much like a color TV lights up when an electron beam hits the phosphorescent screen.
During a January flight of Space Shuttle Columbia, astronauts will test a new commercial fire-fighting system that puts out blazes with a fine water mist -- instead of using harmful chemicals or large quantities of water that damage property. "The fire-fighting industry is in search of a new tool that doesn't use dangerous chemicals or douse fires with huge quantities of water that cause extensive property damage," said Mark Nall, director of the Space Product Development Program at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "By flying this commercial experiment on the STS-107 Columbia mission, NASA is helping industry design a cost-effective, environmentally friendly system for putting out fires."